Countries pledge aid for Afghanistan

Diplomats from more than 60 countries began pledging aid and investment for Afghanistan at a conference yesterday, as President Hamid Karzai outlined a five-year plan to strengthen democratic institutions and to combat terrorism and drug trafficking in his struggling country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that President Bush would ask Congress for $1.1 billion in aid for Afghanistan in next year's budget.US officials declined to detail what the money would be used for, but it is about equal to the amount the United States budgeted for Afghanistan reconstruction projects this year.

''The transformation of Afghanistan is remarkable but, of course, still incomplete," Rice said at the opening of the two-day conference. ''And it is essential that we all increase our support for the Afghan people."

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the host of the conference, pledged $880 million more over the next three years to aid the country, whose transition to democracy remains difficult more than four years after a US-led military campaign drove out the Taliban militia.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the conference participants: ''Afghanistan is now a nascent democracy. Yet our optimism is necessarily tempered by the serious challenges the country is facing."

The five-year plan, which is known as the Afghanistan Compact and which will be signed in London, is a blueprint to improve governance, the economy, and security in the country. Afghanistan is trying to recover from years of devastating conflict that began with the invasion by Soviet forces in 1979.

''It is important in order to demonstrate that where people stand up to terrorism and opt for democracy, we will be on their side," Blair said.Karzai, addressing the members of the gathering yesterday, listed his country's successes since the Taliban were routed from power two months after the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States.

He noted that the country has a constitution, an elected president, and a parliament. He said that 6 million children are now attending schools in a system that had collapsed, and that economic output has grown by 85 percent.

But Afghanistan remains a place of staggering illiteracy, with a huge gap between a comfortable elite and millions of poor. A flourishing illegal poppy trade supplies more than 87 percent of the world's opium. ''We have a long road ahead," Karzai acknowledged.

''On behalf of the Afghan people, I pledge today that we will be a dependable asset to the security of the region and of the world," Karzai said, adding that ''a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Afghanistan is not a blessing for the Afghans alone; it is for all of us."The London conference followed a gathering in Bonn in 2001 that outlined a UN-supervised transition to democracy, culminating with the seating of an elected parliament in December of that year.

This week's conference focuses on diverse subjects such as judicial changes and improvements in rural irrigation, the nuts and bolts of developing institutions.The compact also called for tougher drug enforcement and economic alternatives for poppy farmers, who are often drawn into the illegal trade because it pays much better than traditional crops.

On security, the compact calls for establishment of a ''nationally respected, professional, ethnically balanced Afghan National Army" by the end of 2010, with a goal of 70,000 troops. It also calls for establishing national and border police forces, reports Boston Globe. I.L.

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